My Brit Lit class and I had a GREAT discussion on Pride and Prejudice today, and I mean great. Among the questions we discussed was one that I posed to satisfy my curiosity: what makes Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet so compelling, so attractive, so likable?
After the one guy in class clarified that we were not discussing what made Mr. Darcy attractive to us personally (ha!) and after I strictly prohibited a debate over the relative merits of Colin Firth vs. Matthew Macfadyen, we got to work on the actual book.
Many ideas came forth, from the ability to respect them to the fact that Elizabeth agrees with all our judgments (or do we agree with hers?), but the main opinion that kept surfacing was that both characters were true to themselves, unafraid to speak their minds.
Because we live in a society where the mantra “be true to yourself” is used to justify all sorts of selfish behavior and excuse all sorts of sins, I’m always skeptical of that moral. But when contrasted with the veneer of manners that disguised the real pettiness and shallowness of many of the characters, Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s honesty is indeed refreshing.
There’s evidence for this, too. We’d been reading excerpts from Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” to see how the issues she addressed are at play in Pride and Prejudice. When you read the following indictment of the women of her time, the maddening Mrs. Bennet and the devious Caroline Bingley come to mind:
[F]emales have been insulated, as it were; and, while they have been stripped of the virtues that should clothe humanity, they have been decked with artificial graces that enable them to exercise a short-lived tyranny. Love, in their bosoms, taking place of every nobler passion, their sole ambition is to be fair, to raise emotion instead of inspiring respect; and this base desire, like the servility in absolute monarchies, destroys all strength of character. (emphasis mine)
From the tyranny of Mrs. Bennet’s nerves to the wiles of Caroline Bingley, we see women throughout the novel who trade strength of character for the ability to manipulate situations to their advantage. Elizabeth’s muddy petticoats paired with her “fine eyes” (the traditional windows to the soul) show that she abjures this pretty, petty veneer in favor of her true self. So we like her. And it is virtuous, choosing the harder path–to be authentic rather than cultivating the “artificial graces” of a charming and skillful man-catcher.
But I venture to observe that “being true to themselves” had some limits for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. For one, Elizabeth may be straightforward, even “arch” (as Austen puts it), but she is never brash, never impolite. Often she is squirming or blushing at her mother’s hysterics or Mr. Collins’ stupidity, but she’s never rudely calling them out.
After all, as Emma demonstrates, when you do call someone out in a Jane Austen novel, you become the perpetrator rather than the victim. Mr. Darcy experiences this when he chooses to be rude about the very real disadvantages of a match with Elizabeth. He’s not lauded for speaking his mind in this case; he is rightly rebuked, and by the end of the novel he condemns himself for his abhorrent behavior: “The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been for many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget” (316).
Some people might call bowing to courtesy, rather than calling out the problem head-on, the opposite of authenticity. Rather, many modern people might label it “being a doormat.” Being a doormat could indeed be one reason for squirming and blushing while people misbehave. But are you really willing to call Elizabeth a doormat after her face-offs with Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy, and Lady Catherine?
I say kindness, forbearance, restraint, thinking of others’ feelings even when they may not be considering yours, is strength of character, not weakness. Could conflating courtesy with weakness be part of what is wrong with our online rage culture today?
“I NEVER KNEW MYSELF”
“Till this moment I never knew myself.” Often shared online (or on my Jane Austen coffee mug) as a romantic line, this quote is the other key to how being “true to yourself” can avoid the pitfalls of selfishness and remain virtuous. The quote in full context is this:
“How despicably I have acted!” she cried. “I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! . . . How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation! . . . Till this moment I never knew myself.” (178-179)
Whoa! This is not a quote about finding your true self, as we can take it out of context. It about facing your true self: seeing your self for what it really is, good or bad.
It’s easy to like the part of authenticity that involves giving others a piece of your mind. It’s harder to apply how Pride and Prejudice completes the theme: being honest not only with others but also with yourself—specifically, about your faults.
If you’re wondering, Darcy does the same does the same sort of honest self-examination:
“I have been a selfish being all my life in practice, though not in principle. . . . I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. . . . You taught me a lesson, hard at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled.” (317)
I’ve written before about how it’s intellectually dishonest to not admit your faults. These two characters are some of the world champions of owning their mistakes, even when they’re not pointed out in a kind or helpful way.
Being true to yourself is not automatically a virtue. You can’t use your “authenticity” as a bludgeoning instrument to manipulate others into not challenging your sin patterns: “THAT’S JUST THE WAY I AM” (a la Mr. Darcy at the beginning of the book, or Mrs. Bennet’s nerves). The virtue of authenticity includes the intellectual honesty to see your own flaws–which in turn includes labeling them honestly as flaws, not mere idiosyncrasies.
In the end, I’m pretty sure that’s why I like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Yes, their authenticity repudiates the typical disguises of polite society–but it doesn’t end there. Refusing to put on a disguise for others, they are also less able to disguise themselves from themselves, giving them the chance to grow–and to become two of the most beloved characters of all time.
In contrast, the artificial graces of Caroline Bingley are a disguise not only from others, but also from herself (and let’s be honest: the artificial graces didn’t hide the flaws all that well from others). Her growth is stunted.
LIVING FREE (TO ADMIT YOUR MISTAKES)
We applaud Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth for being ahead of their time, speaking their minds, having independent spirits. But I submit that what makes them admirable instead of insufferable in these things is that their authenticity includes seeing their own mistakes with clear vision: no blame-shifting, no excuses.
So I’ll be true to myself, by all means—but I’ll also hold this as a precious jewel of truth: that Elizabeth did not say “Till this moment I never knew myself” until she knew her flaws.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Bantam Classic, 2003.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”